[ General Interviews ]

Martin Bresnick on The Passions of Bloom

June 9, 2017

By Janet Reynolds

Editor’s note: Composer Martin Bresnick has a long history with Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. We did a profile of him last year that you can read.

 Martin Bresnick

This year, however, marks a very special event: the premiere on June 21 of Bresnick’s Whitman, Melville and Dickinson—Passions of Bloom with the Yale Choral Artists. The oratorio, which is inspired by Bach’s St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion, celebrates three American literary icons—Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville and Walt Whitman—and Yale literature professor and renowned American literary critic, Harold Bloom. We talked to Bresnick about his inspirations for this work.

“These writers are very well known to me,” Bresnick. “They are also among the 12 that Harold Bloom considers to be the most important figures in American literature.” Bresnick is referring to Bloom’s book, The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, a New York Times bestseller that explores these 12 icons and their relationship to the daemon.

“When I read the things he said about them, I felt they were insightful and passionately spoken,” Bresnick says. “I also saw the possibility of a recasting of the concept of the Passion of Bach.” In both Bach’s St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion, the evangelist tells the story, interpreting the significant features of the drama and instructing the listener about the story. “He gives a clue about the pathos in the story,” Bresnick says

“It was striking to me in a secular way that Bloom as a teacher has that kind of evangelical energy to explain things and to help people come to an understanding about how one might feel about these authors and these works,” Bresnick says.

Curating the works of Whitman, Melville, Dickinson and Bloom was no small task, as you can imagine. “It took a while to formulate,” Bresnick says. “It’s not so much question of what you put in as you what you leave out. Anything you do that doesn’t include someone’s favorite version feels like there’s a hole there. It’s challenging to make something coherent that by necessity is abbreviated.”

Bresnick used the works Bloom discussed in the book as his guide. Take Melville. “Bloom considers Moby Dick as the great pinnacle of that writer’s work,” Bresnick says, noting he took some passages from that book for his piece. “But the prose of Melville in Moby Dick is not always suitable, so I added some of my favorite Melville poems.”

“I think Melville is unappreciated as a poet,” he continues, noting that some of the themes of his poems are quite connected to some of the philosophical issues explored in Moby Dick. “So that very much pleased me how the poems could work their way into what is essentially stuff about Moby Dick and Ahab and the darker side of American experiences.”

Picking the Dickinson poetry he would include was even trickier. “Dickinson is so staggeringly brilliant, you could almost take anything,” Bresnick says. “Bloom has his favorites. Some of the points he makes about poems he likes could also be found in other poems that I found more suitable to my musical task.”

Of the three poets, Dickinson is the one most sensitive to music, Bresnick says. She was a pianist, liked to improvise, and sang in singing groups. “Even the structure of her verse has something to do with the hymns she knew as a child,” Bresnick says. “It’s easy to represent her musically. She’s more suggestive of that than either Melville or Whitman.”

“Whitman is the poet of democracy and optimistic acceptance of the world,” Bresnick says. “From there to the dark Melville who is skeptical of just about everything and finally with Dickinson who is so mercurial and elusive, and what appears to be simple on the surface turns out to be quite complicated. What appears prim on the surface turns out to have a lot of passion.

“She is the place where this all comes to rest until Bloom has his final words about everything,” Bresnick says. “It’s Bloom who is the Virgil who takes our Dante through the journey.”

And in that sense Bresnick’s work, Whitman, Melville and Dickinson—Passions of Bloom, is tracing the life of a great teacher. Which is not necessarily something Bloom ever wanted, Bresnick says. “It embarrasses him a little. He’s genuinely touched that I felt so strongly that this could work as a circumstance,” he says. “I warned him. ‘Harold you can’t carry a tune, but you’re going to be singing in a lot of this piece.’”